Tag: Enterprise Voice

How the PSTN Gateway Fits into Skype for Business

Entry #7 in the “How it Fits” series is…the PSTN Gateway!

Like the Reverse Proxy, a PSTN Gateway isn’t a dedicated Server Role in Skype for Business. However, that doesn’t mean it’s optional. In fact, it’s critical if you want to use Enterprise Voice.

Without one of these three options – PSTN Gateway, IP-PBX, or SIP Trunk – you can’t call out of the office. Nor can anyone calling you reach you.

PSTN Gateway Guard

I don’t let anyone pass unless they have a PSTN Gateway. Or a treat.
Photo by Szymon Fischer on Unsplash.

This post will explain why, and how to deploy a PSTN gateway for your Skype for Business Server.

The PSTN Gateway’s Primary Role

In a Skype for Business topology, the PSTN Gateway translates signals between VoIP and PSTN networks. This allows internal VoIP phones to connect out into the vast worldwide analog phone network. And vice versa.

Why would you need to do that? It’s due to the signal types used for voice calls.

The PSTN, or “Public Switched Telephone Network” uses analog signals to transmit your voice. However, Skype for Business uses a digital signal for its transmissions. Same with every other “Voice over IP” system.

These signal types are markedly different. If you tried to listen to a digital IP signal as-is, you’d get an ear-splitting howl!

That’s where the PSTN Gateway steps in. By converting one signal type to other, it allows for seamless voice communications.

It’s not the only solution—you can also use a SIP Trunk for the same purpose. I may do a post on SIP trunks as well, but for now, we’re focusing on the PSTN Gateway.

Main Components of the PSTN Gateway

  1. PSTN Interface: The necessary hardware/software to communicate with the external PSTN network.
  2. VoIP Interface: The necessary hardware/software to communicate with the internal IP network.
  3. Listening Port: The gateway has to listen for signals from the Mediation Server. When creating a topology, you set the port for said listening. Default installs use port 5066 for TCP, and port 5067 for TLS.
  4. DNS Load Balancing – In order to work in Skype for Business Server, a PSTN gateway must implement DNS load balancing. Since it may connect to a pool of Mediation Servers, it has to load-balance calls across the pool evenly.

Other Servers a PSTN Gateway Communicates With

Mediation Server. PSTN Gateways and Mediation Servers have a peer relationship. They’re both translating signals, within the topology and outside the network, to facilitate your conversations.

PBX. If you still have a legacy PBX, the Gateway can inter-operate with it. The Gateway essentially links the VoIP-enabled users into the PBX.

Skype for Business Voice Topology with PSTN Gateway

Example of PSTN Gateway working with Mediation Server. Illustration courtesy of Microsoft Docs.

How a PSTN Gateway Works in a Hybrid Environment

Let’s say you want to move users to Skype for Business Online, but you’ve already invested in an on-prem PSTN connection. Like a SIP Trunk or PSTN Gateway. Can you re-use that investment in any way?

Yes! You can configure Skype for Business to home users in the cloud, while still routing their voice calls through your existing PSTN connection. There are two ways: Use Cloud Connector Edition (CCE), or modify the on-prem deployment for hybrid PSTN.

The FlinchBot blog has done a good job outlining these scenarios: Skype for Business Hybrid deployment with On-Premise PSTN using Cloud PBX. Part: 3

I realize that Skype for Business Online has a retirement date. This option will not be viable very soon. Still, it’s useful to know, in case you need to take a similar approach with regard to Teams in the future.

The PSTN Gateway in Skype for Business & Teams

Obviously, the PSTN Gateway comes into play in an on-prem deployment. What’s the gateway’s equivalent in Teams? It’s Direct Routing: Voice Calling in Teams

From the Teams page:

“Microsoft Direct Routing enables people to use existing phone numbers with Direct Routing in Teams Phone System for a complete calling experience that includes dial tone.”

Software performing the role, as you’d expect in a cloud service. Now, you don’t have to use Direct Routing while using Teams; you can use one of Microsoft’s Calling Plans to make/receive calls too. Direct Routing exists if you have existing numbers and want to stay with your current telecom provider.

Where to Get a PSTN Gateway Appliance

As it’s not a Server Role, you’ll have to install an appliance to act as your PSTN Gateway. However, “where to get one” isn’t as easy a question to answer as it once was.

Why? With Teams rising and more businesses moving to cloud-based VoIP, the need for PSTN gateway devices has dropped. As such, some manufacturers have stopped making them.

Not all though. Sangoma makes VoIP gateways, as does Audiocodes. We’ve used both in deployments, and they will do the job.

PSTN Gateways Plug You Into the Global Phone Network

“Do you want to use a SIP trunk or a PSTN gateway?” I remember a co-worker asking one of our earlier Skype4B customers this, back in late 2015. Of course the customer didn’t know the difference.

After we explained though, they opted for the gateway. That customer is still on Skype for Business, in the same topology with the same gateway, today. Without the PSTN gateway, they’d have gone out of business years ago…because no one could ever call them!

The Mediation Server facilitates voice calls for Skype for Business users. A PSTN gateway makes sure those callers can understand each other.

PSTN gateway connectivity

The gateway is open! Go forth into the wide open PSTN!
Photo by Ágatha Depiné on Unsplash.

What do you think will happen to technology like the PSTN Gateway, as the cloud expands?

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Skype for Business Q&A on Customization

Do you enjoy customizing everything about your desk? Your phone screen, posters, funny desktop gadgets…

Why not the same with your software? Judging by our search traffic, many of you would like to see more about customization for Skype for Business. I collected a whole group of search queries about customizing the Skype for Business client. So that’s what this post is about.

Again, these questions came from this blog’s Google Search Console data. Which means you – yes, you right there – may have submitted the question. Thanks!

Now, you’re no doubt curious. Let’s get to the answering part.

Group Post 2: Customization Questions & Answers

“How to Change Skype for Business Ringtone”
Some of us are OK with a phone’s default ringtone. Others will change it the second they can. For those of you in the latter crowd, it’s very easy to change your Skype for Business call ringtone.

In the Skype for Business client (I’m using the desktop version here), open up the Options window by clicking the gear at top right. Click “Ringtones and Sounds” in the window’s left-side menu.

Ringtone Choices in Skype for Business

You have four options for ringtone changes in the list: Your work number (the main line), your team/group calls, delegate calls, and Response Group calls. Chances are you’re just looking to change your work number’s ringtone. Click that line, and you’ll receive several choices. Click each one to hear it. If one of those sounds good to you, click OK at the bottom.

What if you don’t like any of them? Can you use a custom ringtone? You sure can. To set a custom ringtone (must be a .WAV file), click the “Sound Settings” button in this window. The Windows Sounds window will open.

Scroll down in the Sound’s “Program Events” box until you see the Skype for Business section. Click “Incoming Call” (see screenshot, in blue). With that selected, open the dropdown menu below it (in red).

Sounds Options for Skype for Business Client

These are available sounds within Windows. If you have your own sound file, click the “Browse” button to select it. Make sure it’s in a location where it won’t go anywhere, and that’s it in .WAV format. Click OK, and you have a custom ringtone!

(Note: This will only change the ringtone for you, on this one device.)

Mobile Skype for Business users – You can change your phone’s overall ringtone in your Settings app. The Skype for Business app should take its ringtone from there.

——

“How to Change Skype for Business Theme”
Do the normal white-on-gray app layouts hurt your eyes? Some of us have visual impairments that make normal layout colors uncomfortable. Or perhaps you just like the ‘dark theme’ option (right there with you). Either way, a darker theme would appease your eyes & make work easier.

Unfortunately, Skype for Business doesn’t have a theme selector available in its clients. We’re stuck on this one. But what you can do is voice your opinion. Here’s a suggestion thread on SkypeFeedback.com, requesting a ‘dark mode’ theme for Skype for Business clients.

——

“How to test Skype for Business connectivity”
If you’ve ever been in a webinar, then you know about the “Test Your Connection” process. Just before you join the webinar, you can click on a link to run a quick test of your speakers, microphone, video…and Internet connection.

Most of the time your connection’s fine. On the rare occasions it’s not though, you’re glad for the tester!

What if you want to do that for an on-prem Skype for Business Server? There are two easy ways to do that:

    1. Use one of the connectivity testers at https://testconnectivity.microsoft.com/.
      • The most relevant one is the Skype for Business Server Remote Connectivity Test. Enter your Skype4B account login, domain/username, and password. Verify your request and click “Perform Test.” That’s it.
Connectivity Test Skype for Business

Hmm, this customer needs a little support.

 

  • Start up a Skype Meeting – with yourself!
    Since the Skype Meeting’s communicating with the server to & from your client, it gives you a basic idea of connectivity. You can also rope a co-worker or two in. Bonus if said co-workers are in different offices.

 

This way you’re illustrating the ‘actual’ Meeting experience, without bothering customers. If you have a connectivity issue, it appears as you converse. Before any customers see it and think, “Well, this Skype thing’s not too stable…”

——

“Where do Skype for Business recordings go?”
It’s possible to record your video calls and Skype Meetings directly within Skype for Business! Useful for webinar recordings, documentation, and preservation of communications (e.g. for regulatory compliance).

To activate a recording in a Skype Meeting:

  • Launch the Skype Meeting.
  • In the lower right corner, click the More Options button (the one with three dots).
  • Click “Start Recording.”
  • When you’re done with the meeting, return to More Options and click “Stop Recording.”
  • Wait a moment. Depending on how long the meeting went, it may take Skype for Business a minute or two to save the recording file.

To activate a recording in a video call: Follow the same steps as above. Both recording types will save in MP4 format.

You can always refer to past recordings via the Recording Manager. This is under “Tools” in the main Skype for Business client.

The default location for storing these recordings is the user’s Videos > Lync Recordings folder. You can change this location, as well as the recording quality. See the next answer for steps.

——

“Can you change where Skype for Business recordings go?”
Of course! It’s an option you can set in your client. Go to Tools > Options, and click the Recordings options in the left-side menu. Click the “Browse” button next to the current folder, and navigate to the folder you want to use. I set mine to my Downloads folder.

The Skype4B administrator may change the default for all users, and/or disable users’ ability to change the default recordings location.

Skype for Business is OK on Customization

Customization isn’t as high of a priority for Skype for Business as privacy. Which does make sense; the content of your messages needs protection. If that means less attention paid to style, so be it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything with it. Hopefully these answers provide a little more “fun” to your daily chats & meetings.

(I didn’t talk about emojis for one reason – you already know where those are!)

Do you have a question on Skype for Business to which you’ve never found an answer? Send it in! Let’s see what we can find out for you.

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How to Preserve Unified Messaging

3 Ways to Keep Voicemail & Auto Attendant when Upgrading to Skype for Business 2019

Those of us who use voicemail in Skype for Business face a quandary.

We did get a new Skype for Business Server, as well as a new Exchange Server. But we’re missing one component: the Unified Messaging service in Exchange Server 2013/2016. Exchange Server 2019 will NOT have Unified Messaging.

The sysadmins reading this already know what that means. They can feel it as a sudden clench in the chest. Skype for Business’ voicemail needs Unified Messaging. Without it you’ll end up upgrading a part of the office’s phone system away!

Two, actually…the Auto Attendant’s gone too. No more, “Press 1 for Customer Service. Press 2 for Sales…”

What do we do? If your offices use Skype for Business on-prem and employ Unified Messaging for voicemail and/or Auto Attendant, it’s time for some alternative thinking.

Fortunately, we’re all IT pros. We’re good at creative solutions. That’s what we’ll have to do here, to preserve Unified Messaging.

The Path to IT Solutions

The IT professional’s configuration thought process. (Sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?)
Photo by Jaromír Kavan on Unsplash.

Right now we have 3 ‘preservation’ options, each with different levels of expense & usable time. Time to run some comparisons!

Voicemail/AA Preservation 1: Keep Your Exchange 2013/2016 Server On-Prem

This is a way to preserve UM within the Microsoft infrastructure. It involves juggling between different versions of Skype4B and Exchange. Essentially, you upgrade your Skype for Business Server to 2019…but not your Exchange Server. It stays at its current version. Accounts and configuration intact.

You’ll need to undertake several processes. Changing the UM dial plan, voice policies, etc. It all depends on your existing Exchange Server’s configuration. Here are resources to help you:

VERDICT: The most direct solution. With a critical flaw – it has a lifespan. Exchange 2016 will run out of mainstream support in October 2020. Extended Support runs until October 2025, which lets you stretch things more. You’re still faced with the potential of higher support costs the longer you go.

This is the option I prefer, frankly. Even with the lifespan boundary. You retain the most control, and it requires almost no new hardware.

If you don’t run Exchange 2016 already, or the lifespan boundary doesn’t work, then we have Option 2.

Voicemail/AA Preservation 2: Switch to Cloud Voicemail/Cloud Auto Attendant (Hybrid Deployment)

Cloud Voicemail is Microsoft’s response to yanking Unified Messaging out of Exchange. It’s (predictably) a part of Office 365, and requires a tenant to operate. Same with Auto Attendant—now it’s a cloud service too.

Cloud Server Ports

Setting up Cloud Voicemail isn’t that complicated. You must have hybrid connectivity enabled first, of course. I’d even recommend doing this a week in advance, so you can test & verify successful connectivity.

To configure Cloud Voicemail, you’ll need:

  • Your Office 365 tenant account login/password
  • The domain assigned to your tenant
  • Administrative access to your Skype for Business Front End and Edge Servers
  • Administrative permissions on PowerShell
  • At least one test user account

Once you have those together, follow the steps here. It’s basically a handful of cmdlets: How to Configure Cloud Voicemail – Microsoft Docs

If you already have a hybrid deployment, using Exchange Online, Microsoft will transition you to Cloud Voicemail in February 2020.

Cloud Voicemail is not a 100% drop-in replacement for Unified Messaging though. According to ExPTA.com, Cloud Voicemail doesn’t include Play on Phone, call answering rules, text notification, or Outlook Voice Access. Doesn’t mean those won’t show up down the line, but for now, Cloud Voicemail’s sticking to the basics.

VERDICT: If you want to move to Exchange Server 2019, you’ll have to switch either to Cloud Voicemail or Option 3. Exchange 2019 doesn’t have the Unified Messaging service. This might help to gradually introduce Office 365 tools to the company. You also get Teams this way, which could provide a transition path for all staff…if you’re going that way.

Voicemail/AA Preservation 3: Integrate a Third-Party Voicemail/Auto Attendant Service with Skype for Business

This option essentially abandons using Exchange Online, Cloud Voicemail, and Office 365. Instead, you add in a third-party service to provide your users voicemail and/or an Auto Attendant feature.

We have a curious reversal on this track. It’s relatively easy to add in Auto Attendant…several third-party providers exist to do just that.

However, voicemail’s a little harder to add in. I came across two solutions that appear to work with Skype for Business Server:

As far as I know, we haven’t worked with either of these solutions directly in a Skype for Business topology. If you have, please share your thoughts in the comments.

VERDICT: If you do want to upgrade to Exchange Server 2019, but don’t want anything to do with Office 365, this is your only option to preserve voicemail and/or Auto Attendant.

Preserving Unified Messaging: Unfortunate, but Necessary.

I can understand why Microsoft chose to remove Unified Messaging. It falls within their “cloud first” mission, consolidating things like voicemail & Auto Attendant into the Azure/O365 ecosystem. (Must have taken a LOT of coding…)

That said, those of us who appreciate on-prem control now have another instance of “technical gymnastics.” Trying to find a new solution for a resurgent problem.

Unless of course you want to drop Unified Messaging? I can’t think of a scenario when a business would voluntarily drop its voicemail/Auto Attendant…but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps you’re considering the idea?

Auto Attendant Virtual Assistant

Maybe use a Virtual Assistant instead? “Hello, you have reached XYZ Corp. Press 1 for Sales…”
Photo by Fezbot2000 on Unsplash.

In terms of how these processes shake out…we do have a full Skype for Business Server 2019 installation planned this year. We’ll most likely use Preservation 1, maintaining our current Exchange 2016 server. (Exchange 2019 will have a separate test.) I will document EVERYthing as we go, and produce plenty of blog posts from that.

If you’re planning a Skype4B 2019 upgrade, which Unified Messaging preservation method will you use?

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How the Mediation Server Fits into Skype for Business

Our fifth entry in the “How It Fits” series is…the Mediation Server!

Mediation is a central element within Skype for Business. It’s arguably the most versatile Server Role in the Skype for Business topology too. There’s almost no end to the number of configurations you can deploy for it…collocate, standalone, or pool. SIP trunk or PSTN gateway. Multiple gateways. Multiple trunks. Call routes and bypasses.

The one thing all of these configurations have in common…is listening. Mediation Server listens and translates. Routes and connects. If you use Skype for Business at all for voice, you’re talking through a Mediation Server.

This post, like the previous posts in my “How it Fits” series, will give an overarching take on the Mediation Server’s function and value. I took a more agnostic approach, since we now have two versions of Skype for Business Server to consider (2015 and 2019).

How does Mediation Server work in both of them? Any differences between versions? Let’s find out.

The Mediation Server’s Primary Role

Mediation servers translate signals between your Skype for Business’ Enterprise Voice infrastructure, and the gateway your topology uses to reach the PSTN: either a PSTN gateway, a SIP trunk, or even a PBX. “Mediating” your voice communications, basically.

Mediation Server Signal Processing

The signaling protocols Mediation Server handles. Photo courtesy of Microsoft Docs.

Because of this critical function, Mediation Server is a required Server Role. It also helps facilitate E911, Call Admission Control, and Media Bypass.

This is one of the Server Roles for whom hardware quality matters. The higher the server’s processing capacity & available RAM, the more calls a Mediation Server can handle.

Main Components of the Mediation Server

  1. Signal Translation: The reason you must have a Mediation Server for Enterprise Voice. Without signal translation, nobody could understand each other on the phone. You’d either sound like 80s-era robots, or brain-scrambled demons!
  2. Call Routing: The server coordinates with your gateway of choice to route calls where they need to go. Peer-to-peer inside the network, out to a branch site, or out to a customer three states away on their cellphone.
  3. Media Bypass: Not really a component, but a capability. Skype for Business admins can configure a call route to flow AROUND the Mediation Server! The call route would travel directly between a user’s device and a PSTN Gateway. Why do this? It can reduce lag without traversing the Mediation Server. Media bypass improves call quality by reducing latency, unnecessary translation, possibility of packet loss, and the number of potential points of failure.
  4. Call Admission Control (CAC): A bandwidth management tool. Based on available bandwidth, the Mediation Server determines the best use for existing calls. The idea is to automatically prevent poor call quality as often as possible.NOTE: Media Bypass and CAC are mutually exclusive. If one’s in use for a particular call, the other is not.
Digital Voice Traffic VoIP

Basically, Mediation Server helps you avoid the digital voice equivalent of this.
Photo by Jens Herrndorff on Unsplash

Other Servers a Mediation Server Communicates With

Front End. Of course, Mediation communicates with the Front End Servers all the time. It employs Front End’s database for call routing, and performs a similarly-central role in voice communications Site-wide.

PSTN Gateway / SIP Trunk / IP-PBX. These are the gateway mechanisms, or “peers” for bringing calls to & from Skype for Business. This is where your defined call routes meet the Mediation Server.

Load Balancers. I mentioned in the How the Load Balancer Fits post that load balancers must communicate with servers they’re balancing AND the servers sending them traffic. Since almost all voice traffic must go through the Mediation Server, they’ll talk with load balancers frequently.

(The peers performing call routing to/from Mediation Server also act as load balancers, particularly when you deploy a Mediation Pool.)

How a Mediation Server Works in a Hybrid Deployment

What does a Mediation Server do in a hybrid topology with Office 365?

Fundamentally the same thing. If you’re hybridizing an existing Skype for Business Server deployment, you’ll enable synchronization for Active Directory and change call routes. You’ll have to reflect such changes in your on-prem Mediation Server.

There are too many options to the hybridization process to cover in 1 post. Suffice to say, it all depends on your gateways/SIP trunks, and how much of Office 365’s calling services you use.

Should You Collocate with Front End, or Use a Separate Mediation Pool?

By default, Skype for Business wants to collocate a Mediation Server with the Front End Server. Which is fine for smaller topologies.

If you’re using a SIP trunk though, I recommend the standalone approach. At least one Mediation Server, or a small pool. Microsoft also recommends this approach, but we’ve seen it borne out in the field. Each time we deployed a standalone Mediation Server for a customer location with a SIP trunk, we fielded fewer calls about latency issues (if any).

One caveat for you Skype for Business Server 2019 deployers: According to Brian Siefferman at Perficient, if you’re migrating your Skype4B topology from an existing deployment, it’s a good idea to collocate the legacy Mediation Server during initial deployment. Then you can decide whether to keep it collocated, or move to standalone, later in the process.

Will the Mediation Server Change in Skype for Business Server 2019?

Not fundamentally. It continues its role of call routing/media processing.

We even get a performance boost for Mediation’s call capacity. Paul Lange points out that that a standalone Mediation Server in 2019 will handle 2,000 concurrent calls, with hyper-threading enabled (it can handle 1,500 calls in Skype4B 2015).

Makes sense, since a few deprecated elements deal with messaging—XMPP Gateways, Persistent Chat. Mediation Server won’t need communications with them now, freeing up more processing power for concurrent calls.

Dog Licking Mediation Server

Still reliably doing what it’s ‘trained’ to do.
Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

A Good Listener to Facilitate Voice Calls

The Mediation Server has existed since the OCS 2007 days. Of course, It has grown as more VoIP options came into being. But like its Front End partner, it has continued to provide the same fundamental service for over 10 years.

As long as it has sufficient bandwidth & a reliable gateway available, Mediation Server makes voice calls happen. Which type of gateway you use with it, depends on your network and Site needs.

If you’d like further reference on deploying Mediation Server, try this guide: Mediation Server Deployment Guidelines – MS Docs

What kind of gateway does your Skype for Business’ Mediation Server talk to?

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Device Review: Yealink T58A Skype for Business Phone

Today I’m reviewing the Yealink SIP-T58A desk phone. Like its little brother (which we reviewed last time), this is a softphone designed for Skype for Business users. I put it through the same paces as the T56, within the same Skype for Business deployment.

Not surprisingly, it had very similar results. But they’re not identical phones…and they aren’t meant for identical uses.

As promised, I’ve included some use cases in this post. Instances where one phone works better than the other. Consider this post as a ‘Part 2’ to the previous post.

Ready? Let’s get to the T58A review!

Initial Impressions

The Yealink T58A is, like you’d expect, just a slightly more feature-rich iteration. It has the same dimensions as the T56A, the same desk footprint, and the same standardized phone layout with touch screen.

Here they are side-by-side. Can you spot the difference?

Yealink T56 and T58 Phones

Hint: Look at the touch screens.

Design-wise, the only notable difference between the T56 and T58 is that the T58’s screen is adjustable. In nearly every other aspect, they are identical.

Yealink T58 Adjustable Screen

Because they’re so similar, I took a little more time with this model. Just in case it had any quirks only prolonged use reveals.

(Impromptu test: I accidentally dropped the handset before I could connect it to the cord. Luckily, nothing bad happened! It didn’t even scratch on our concrete floors.)

I did face the same sign-in challenge on the T58A as I did the T56A. It’s set to accept only Trusted Certificates by default. My contact at Yealink says they do this as a security measure. So it’s not really an issue as I said before…I can certainly envision topologies where this makes sense.

The same change we used last time worked here. Here’s the documentation again: Phone Cannot Get Provisioned with Certificate Error – Yealink Support

Once I flipped that switch, zero problems signing in to Skype for Business.

The Major Difference: Video Call Capability

If the T56 and T58 are so similar, why make two different models?

The answer is on the T58’s back. It has a vertical slot in its back, above the USB port. You can remove the cover over this slot and reveal a second, upward-facing USB port.

Yealink T58A Back

From Yealink.com’s page on the T58A:

“You can easily turn your SIP-T58A smart media phone into a video phone ready with an optional removable two-megapixel HD camera CAM50.”

Yealink T58A Camera USB Port

The T56A doesn’t have this slot available. A co-worker commented on the camera slot’s use of USB. It meant you could also plug a USB cable in, moving the camera to a better angle if desired.

Yealink T58A Camera USB Port from Above

It is a USB 2.0 slot, by the way.

Now we know why they made two models. One can take a video expansion module; the other cannot. This makes for a huge difference in use cases. I’ll go over that in a moment.

Please note: This is the SIP-T58A model. That means its camera works with SIP…NOT Skype for Business. Another phone version does that.

That said, let’s go through some testing!

Using Skype for Business on the T58A

Like its brother, the T58A shows favorited Skype contacts on its Home screen. The options, and simplicity of use, are the same too.

I also discovered that both models preserve account details. I disconnected both the T56A and T58A from PoE. Left them idle for a day. Then plugged them both into another PoE cable at a co-worker’s desk.

Both models saved my Skype4B account login. I only had to unlock the phone, and poof, there’s my Presence status & contacts. Nice going on this one Yealink.

Call Quality: Almost an exact mirror to the T56A. One thing I did notice was that the “Noise Proof” technology came through a little better on the T58. That could be due to my listening for it, though.

Voicemail: In a stroke of good luck, I had several voicemails come in succession one day. (Murphy’s Law, you walk away from your desk, and everybody calls…) This gave me a chance to test out the voicemail controls more heavily than before.

You reach voicemail on the T58A through its “Menu” button.

Yealink T58A Menu

I tried both ways of dialing into voicemail:

  • Dial in, then pick up handset
  • Pick up handset, then dial in

No trouble either way.

Bluetooth: The Yealink team encouraged me to test out Bluetooth on the phone. I had to update the firmware in order to do this; the version shipped with the phone didn’t have Bluetooth enabled yet.

(NOTE: A new firmware just came out a few days prior to my review. If you buy a Yealink after reading this, your phone’s screen will look different.)

Updating the firmware took 5 minutes. Well, 10, if you count the download time.
Yealink Support – T58A Downloads

Once I’d updated, Bluetooth appeared as a rocker switch in Settings. You can enable Bluetooth and WiFi from the Web admin menu, or directly on the phone.

Yealink T58A Bluetooth Setting

From there it’s the typical pairing process: Open the Bluetooth screen on the phone, wait for BT devices to show up in the “Available Devices” list, and tap to pair.

I paired my Jabra Motion Office headset. I keep its base wired to my laptop dock. To test, I disconnected the base from my dock, so it couldn’t field calls coming from my laptop.

Shortly afterward, two calls came in. The Jabra started beeping right away, just like it normally does.

I did notice a slightly shorter ‘walking range’ while taking these calls though. When my Jabra takes a call from the laptop, I can walk clear across the office and still have a nice clear call. When my Jabra took the calls through the T58, I got a little crackle of static when I walked about ten feet away.

Nothing huge. All in all, the phone did a good job of working with my Bluetooth headset.

Issues: Security/Hacking Concern

A reader messaged me after the T56 post went up. “Yealink phones get hacked all the time. Don’t use them!”

I checked on this, and did find several reports from people dealing with hacked Yealinks. All older models though. I searched specifically for the T56A and T58A, but didn’t come across hacking reports on them.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Far from it! But the reader’s warning raises an extremely important point, not just about Yealink phones:

Whenever deploying a new VoIP phone, no matter the manufacturer, make sure it’s fully secured before issued to the user.

Default passwords changed. Firewall in place. Logging enabled. Ports closed. It’s another computer on the network…thus, a potential cyberattack vector. Treat it like one.

Use Cases for the T56A and T58A

Given how similar these phones are, it took me a while to determine separate use cases. They’re both solid phones, with an extremely useful Web administrative menu per device.

I did though! Here are some use cases where each of the Yealink T-Series phones would serve well.

T56A:

  • Run-of-the-mill desk workers.
  • Compliance-heavy workstations, if regulations prohibit display of certain materials in a video feed. Even accidentally.
  • Multiple branch offices, in a bulk deployment (especially if you manage the branch offices’ IT remotely).
  • Common Area Phone. Both models have a CAP function in their settings. I prefer the T56 here since it’s a simpler device with no video.

T58A: All of the above, as well as the following.

  • Branch Management phones, for frequent conferencing.
  • Sales/Marketing team phones, for quick video calls.
  • Customer Service phones…in case you really want to embody ‘customer-facing’!
  • Small-team conferencing phone (though Yealink does have a series of conferencing phones, called the “CP Series”).
  • Non-Skype for Business VoIP deployments. The camera add-on works with SIP video…but this version doesn’t work for Skype for Business video. That’s the Yealink T58A Skype for Business Edition.

Now, what are some use cases where Yealink makes a good choice, as opposed to other SIP phone brands (e.g. Polycom, AudioCodes)?

  • You run Skype for Business Server on-prem or hybrid.
  • Moving to Teams IS on your radar. Yealink has T56 and T58 models configured for Teams use.
  • You have multiple offices, but similar communications needs (which means you can standardize deployment & save time/money).

The Verdict: An Easy-to-Use, Expandable Desk Phone for Power Users

Now that I’ve completed my reviews, I handed the T58A over to the co-worker I mentioned last post. His turn to play. He’ll also put the phone through its interoperability paces, in our own network and at customer sites. It has to work within our security parameters before he’ll sign off on customer use.

Yealink T58A SIP Phone

I do like the T58A’s video expansion option. But I personally don’t use video much. It’s a nice-to-have for standard users. For power users though, it’s necessary. Which is why I say power users would get more value from the T58A than the T56A.

You can get the Yealink SIP-T58A from Jenne.com.

Does your office use Yealink SIP phones like these? Please share your impressions in the comments.

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Device Review: Yealink T56A Skype for Business Phone

Time for a new device to review! This time we have a new desk phone: the SIP-T56A from Yealink. Matt at Jenne.com kindly sent me this unit for review, after we expressed interest in the Yealink line.

The T56A is designed for Skype for Business use. It does support expansion modules, as well as Bluetooth & Wi-Fi connectivity, and plays nice with Office 365.

Would Yealinks serve as a good alternative to Polycom phones, if we couldn’t get a Polycom (or the customer didn’t like them)? Will they stand up to the daily grind? How well do they work with Skype for Business?

Let’s find out!

Initial Impressions

I unboxed the T56A as soon as it arrived. Pulling it out, I did a quick comparison to the Polycoms we have around the office. The T56A weighs about the same as those, but it’s wider. You’ll need a little desk space for it.

Yealink Phone Unboxing
Yealink T56A Unboxed

It’s a pretty straightforward phone console. Buttons for hold, transfer, volume, mute, etc. Build quality’s solid; nothing about this feels flimsy or loose.

Yealink T56A Dialpad

The phone comes with a big touch screen attached. You can’t adjust the touch screen on the T56, but at least it’s low-glare. You can lower its brightness too, under Settings > Basic > Display > Backlight.

Yealink T56 Phone Setup

The T56 doesn’t need a separate power adapter if you use PoE (but one is optional). I plugged this in to a PoE network cable.

Issues: Signing In

The phone booted as soon as I plugged in the PoE cable. It brought me to a nice simple start window within about 20 seconds.

Yealink T56A Boot

Once the phone finished startup, it brought me to a Sign In menu right away. I had three choices: An Extension/PIN sign-in, a Skype for Business sign-in, or a Web sign-in.

Yealink T56A Skype for Business

(Side note: Since the phone sent me straight into Sign In, I didn’t realize for several minutes that I could just hit Back a few times and reach the phone’s main menu!)

Now, here’s where I had the one issue. I had some difficulty getting signed in. It wanted me to use an extension and PIN at first, but I didn’t have those. (I did try my previous phone’s extension and PIN, but alas, no use.)

Next I opted for the Skype User Sign In. We run Skype for Business Server 2015 on-prem, and this phone used a PoE cable to connect. Should be no problem at all, right?

I entered my sign-in address (email), username (the same email), and my Skype4B password. Took me a couple tries to figure this out; the instructions didn’t specify the format.

When I did get the right combination, I saw the following error: “Cert web service not found.”

Hmmm. Did we have an issue with our on-prem Front End? I checked with the Consulting team. No, the Front End’s fine.

I checked online and found the solution: In default settings, the T56A only accepts Trusted Certificates. This can inhibit initial sign-ins, even on secured Skype for Business Front Ends.

Luckily, the fix is simple. Yealink has it documented on their Support site: Phone Cannot Get Provisioned with Certificate Error – Yealink Support

The phone also has a Web administrative menu. You access it by entering the phone’s assigned IP into your web browser, like most such devices (e.g. “http://192.168.1.1”). The instructions contain the default login & password for this admin menu.

The fix involves disabling the Trusted Certificate Only option in the admin menu, under the Security tab. Once I did this, I discovered a very handy shortcut. Instead of returning to the phone and re-entering my login, I could sign into Skype4B right from the admin menu!

All I had to do was click the Account tab, enter my login & password, and boom. The phone recognized the sign-in and displayed its main screen. Ready for testing!

Using Skype for Business on the T56A

The T56A main screen shows favorited Skype contacts. You have a bottom toolbar with four options: Favorites, History, Contacts, and Menu. Menu gives you the Calendar, Voice Mail, Status, Setting, and Meet Now buttons. All styled consistently with Skype for Business.

Yealink T56A Main Screen

The phone’s DEAD-simple to work with (heh heh). I replaced my normal desk phone, a Polycom CX300, with it to test out. I anticipated some learning curve, of course…it would take me a couple days to familiarize myself with the different ways to make & handle calls, right?

Nope! Within minutes I had this phone down. Unlock PIN set, favorites configured, and I know where & how to change my Presence status in two taps.

I connected my Jabra Motion Office headset to the T56A as well, using the headset port on the back. No configuration necessary.

Yealink T56 with Jabra Headset

T56A hanging out with my Jabra headset.

Now, the most important aspect of a phone: Call Quality.

Since I replaced my Polycom with the T56A, it handled all my calls for the past week. The handset is marked HD, and judging by call quality, it’s true. Everyone’s voices came through as clear as could be, whether co-worker (internal) or customer (external).

(Even the recorded spam message came through nice and clear. No idea how they got my number…)

To illustrate the call quality, let me draw a comparison. When you talk with your co-workers on one device, and then switch to another, you can tell which device is clearer, can’t you? You already know their voice. Your brain knows how they should sound. So when one device carries their voice sharper than the other, you notice.

That’s what happened during my T56A testing. Voices came through sharper on the T56A than on my prior phone (the Polycom CX300).

I found out afterward that this happens, at least in part, due to Yealink’s “Noise Proof” technology. The phone actually blocks out background noise while you’re on a call. I’ve seen this demonstrated on other phones before. The fact that I didn’t think of it until well after my calls says Yealink did a good job with their own version.

The Web Admin Menu: Yealink’s Secret Superpower

The Web administrative menu is incredible on these phones…I can configure every aspect of the phone from my browser. From changing ringtones to upgrading firmware.

Yealink Web Admin

Not only does that save a HUGE amount of provisioning time, it means I can totally avoid hunching over the phone, tapping out letters on the touch screen.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great that the T56A has a touch screen in the first place. The screen has a good response rate, analogous to an Android smartphone. But if I can save a few minutes typing on my laptop’s keyboard, so much the better!

Having a comprehensive Web admin menu makes a big difference for IT professionals. It means we can provision devices remotely, with ease.

All we need is the phone’s IP address when it’s plugged into the network. The IP address is under Settings > Status. With that, we can take care of Skype for Business configuration, security updates, directory control, and so on. The user just has to plug the phone in!

The Verdict: An Excellent Desk Phone for Skype for Business Users

I showed the T56A to a colleague. He handles hardware deployment for most of our Skype for Business customers. Most of the time he deploys Polycom phones, with Jabra or Plantronics headsets.

He saw what this device can do and his eyes almost popped out of his head! “Why didn’t we have this before?!” He started throwing out names of customer sites where he could place them. I stopped him at #5. He could have kept going. Coming from him, an IT pro who’s worked with dozens of device manufacturers over the past 25 years, I consider that high praise.

You can get the Yealink SIP-T56A from Jenne.com.

Next up I’ll test the T56A’s brother, the Yealink T58A. I’ll include a comparison of the two models, and good use cases for both. See you back here next time!

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Software Add-on Review: SuperToast V3

Never Miss a Skype for Business Notification Again

In early 2016 I wrote a post titled, Making Sure You See Skype for Business Notifications—No Matter What!.

In said post I reviewed a notification app called SuperToast, made by Modality Systems. It remains one of the blog’s most-read posts today. Evidently lots of Skype for Business users miss notifications…

The other day, Louise at Modality asked if I’d like to review the new, redeveloped SuperToast V3. Of course I was happy to do so!

What is SuperToast?

The SuperToast app sits in your taskbar. Every time you miss a Skype for Business call or Instant Message, SuperToast displays a notification popup with details about the missed event.

Chat Notification

Someone is chatting with me!

SuperToast notifies you of missed Instant Messages, incoming audio/video calls, and missed audio/video calls.

Missed Call Notification

Can’t talk now, writing this post.

The notification windows only displays the first message someone sends. If for example you receive 4 messages in succession from one person (as my co-workers sometimes do), you’ll only see one SuperToast notification. Which is smart—nobody wants a stream of popup windows blocking other work!

The SuperToast settings could not be simpler. Here’s the entire settings window.

SuperToast Settings

The SuperToast Options window. Five settings. Nothing else needed.

You choose which communication types for which you want to receive SuperToast notifications via checkboxes. That’s it.

What’s New in V3

The new SuperToast has two main improvements over old versions.

  1. Full support for the latest Skype for Business clients.
  2. Bug Fixes:
    1. Notifications appearing despite you being active in the conversation window
    2. Not bringing the conversation window to the front when clicking on a notification

The UI is largely the same as before. Which helped it fold back into my day-to-day routine almost immediately. But after a few weeks’ testing, I can say V3 is more stable now.

Two Versions: Single-Use and Business-Wide

SuperToast comes in two versions:

  • SuperToast One is a single-user version.
  • SuperToast for Business is a business version with central management.

SuperToast One has a few limitations the Business version doesn’t. You can’t customize SuperToast One’s look & feel, no central admin, etc. Pretty much what you’d expect for a single-user.

SuperToast One costs $7/year. SuperToast for Business costs $7/year for 5-99 users, $5/year for 100-999 users, $2.50/year for 1000-2499 users, and $1/year for 2500+ users. So no matter which version you buy, or how many, you’re only paying a few dollars a user per year. You even get 24-hour support with this too.

They used to have a free version. Now there’s a free 30-day trial.

Incoming Call Notification

Hold on, better take this. Be right back.

Who Can/Should Use SuperToast?

Modality developed this app to support Skype for Business users. Like us, they didn’t like missing notifications from co-workers or customers. The app works with Skype for Business Server and Online (O365) deployments.

Lync 2013 users still hanging on? SuperToast will work for you too.

That said, here’s a brief mention of SuperToast’s limits. It has 3 that I can determine:

  1. No Mac version yet.
  2. I am not certain if SuperToast will work with the Teams desktop client.
  3. As many commenters pointed out on my 2016 post, this IS a third-party app. Some organizations block third-party apps from user’s devices on security grounds. That is perfectly valid—we see malware apps all the time on customer PCs!
    In such cases, I’d recommend using SuperToast for Business. Its central management and Modality’s reputation should dissuade any security concerns.

I do know that Modality continues to work on SuperToast. We may see these limits resolved fairly soon. If I hear of timetables for such, I’ll update this post accordingly.

SuperToast in Taskbar

Runs in the taskbar. Quiet. Unobtrusive.

Super for Putting Missed Calls/Conversations in Front of Your Eyes

SuperToast is a single-purpose app. It does one job…and it does it well. Plus it’s cheap to buy. I always like simple apps like this; they don’t require a high learning curve, and provide an immediate benefit.

For those who miss a lot of notifications in the course of a workday, SuperToast makes for a quick, valuable solution.

SuperToast Page – Modality Systems

Used SuperToast before? How was your experience?

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The Future of Enterprise Skype for Business Server: Your Feedback

What will enterprises do with their on-prem Skype for Business deployments after 2020? What factors weigh upon those decisions? I asked you…and you answered!

I received several responses from enterprise admins, all running Skype for Business Servers on-prem. Some went as I expected…while others gave me a few surprises!

Dog Sounding Off

Sounding Off!
Photo by Robert Szadkowski on Unsplash

Thank you to everyone who responded. Now it’s time to collate the feedback and see what the future may hold.

These are my overall feedback impressions:

  • All respondents knew about the 2020 on-prem ‘deadline’
  • Most have a plan to address it already, but those plans have either not begun or are still in debate with Management
  • Cost is one major factor, but Call Performance and Maintenance are equally important
  • Approximately half were in favor of moving to Teams. Half were not.

Let’s go through all of these.

Expected Costs, and What’s More Important

I didn’t get much in the way of direct numbers. Some admins had their Skype for Business costs wrapped into larger server stacks; others had third parties supporting their Skype4B and would have to take time away from other projects to request numbers. C’est la vie.

What numbers I did get indicated the following…

Costs for (virtual) servers averaged around $1500-1800 per, over 5 years. However this didn’t appear to weigh heavily on future updates/migrations. Since deployments are complete by now, install costs aren’t seen as a consideration. Neither is power, curiously enough…no one brought it up as a cost concern OR post-2020 savings.

The bigger cost concerns are:

  1. New user licenses & phones. If we assume a deskphone like the Polycom VVX 300, then the phone cost is about $100. Add $36 for a user CAL and you have $136 per new user. Not a huge cost, but one that adds up over time.
  2. Maintenance. Costs for monthly server maintenance ranged from almost $0 to nearly $500. This concerned the majority of respondents. While server maintenance is a part of every admin’s life, it takes up time we could use productively elsewhere. Regaining that time through a reduction in servers – or a cloud migration – appeals to most.

Which costs would they save on with Teams? Most said administrators. Going from 4 admins to 1-2, for example. Reduced need for maintenance = less admin time required = fewer admins ultimately needed.

(This is not to say you should drop all admins when going to Teams. Our own experience shows that Office 365 is NOT 100% maintenance-free!)

One respondent, Rob G., said it wasn’t really a matter of cost—but rather performance. From his feedback:

“The reality is, enterprise security teams/policies will end up pushing many companies to ‘as a service’ solutions not due to any inherent cloudy advantages but simply because it’s the cheapest way to shadow IT any latency-sensitive applications out of a dynamic security agent network.”

Interesting position to take…and illuminating. Whether or not costs change, at least one enterprise will move to Teams for performance’s sake. I have to admire such a position, honestly.

The Skype for Business ecosystem advanced real-time, Internet-based voice communications a LONG way in the past few years. Still some hiccups though, depending on bandwidth and systems architecture. Focusing on performance makes a lot of sense for any company with thousands of employees under its roof.

After 2020, Skype4B Enterprises Will Scatter

So, the original question:

Is moving to Teams/Office 365 at enterprise-level really a cost savings over on-prem Skype for Business?

In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. But it turns out that the question itself is immaterial.

Some enterprises will move to Teams, even if it costs more. Others will move to another on-prem UC solution. A few will cling onto Skype for Business Server until the very last.

When that time comes, we’ll have to check back in with everyone. See what factors are in play then!

Future Planning

“I’m not sure this is the best way to plan our next systems deployment, Alex.”
“Too late to back out now, Mike. Oh, and check.”
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Running an on-prem Skype for Business Server? What are your plans for the future?
 

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The Skype for Business Quagmire Creeping Up on Enterprises

Skype for Business Server has one new version coming. After that, enterprises could get stuck between an economic rock & a financial hard place.

Skype for Business Server 2019 is coming. However, given all the pushes toward O365/Teams, it’s not unreasonable to presume that 2019 will be the last on-prem version of Skype for Business.

This presents a major problem for larger businesses. They will either have to move to Teams, or investigate another on-prem Unified Communications provider.

What’s wrong with moving to Teams? Nothing! …except possibly cost. When you scale up to enterprise-level user bases, a cloud service like Office 365 could really strain the budget. What if your business has 1,000 users? 5,000? 10,000+? Even if you’re paying a few dollars per user per month, the total monthly cost for all those O365 subscription licenses adds up fast!

Let’s look at the whole conundrum enterprises using Skype for Business will have to face. It’s a quiet, creeping financial snarl…and it’s coming in just a few years.

Does Teams Cost Less than Skype for Business Server? No, and Here’s Why.

First, let’s talk numbers. Microsoft touts Office 365 and Teams as its “Intelligent Communications” option for businesses, and wants everyone to move to the O365 platform. Okay, fine. How does that work out cost-wise for enterprises?

Let’s say we have three businesses—one with 1,000 users, one with 5,000 users, and one with 10,000 users. How much would these businesses spend if they all used Teams (and Office 365)?

I’ll use two subscription levels here: E1 and E5. Why these? Because we’re finding that our O365 customers, even smaller ones, need one of these two levels the most. They need the backend services E1-E5 gives them. If they already have Office licenses, they go to E1. If not, E5.

I am using the Office 365 ROI Calculator for the monthly cost per user. It gives slight discounts on the regular costs.

E1 Monthly Costs*:

  • $6.59 x 1,000 users = $6,590/month x 12 = $79,080/year
  • $6.38 x 5,000 users = $31,900/month x 12 = $382,800/year
  • $6.18 x 10,000 users = $61,800/month x 12 = $741,600/year

E5 Monthly Costs*:

  • $28.82 x 1,000 users = $28,820/month x 12 = $345,840/year
  • $27.93 x 5,000 users = $139,650/month x 12 = $1,675,800/year
  • $27.04 x 10,000 users = $270,400/month x 12 = $3,244,800/year

(*Monthly values do not include initial setup fees or hardware maintenance.)

These numbers quickly move from ‘doable’ to ‘ridiculous.’ Dropping 3 million a year for Office 365?

Let’s compare these numbers to the cost of an on-prem Skype for Business Server. I’ll use numbers from a previous post on this topic:

Skype for Business Server with 1,000 Users:

  • 1 Front End Server License (MSRP) – $3,646.00
  • 1,000 Standard User CALs – $36.00 each, or $36,000 total
  • 1,000 Enterprise User CALs (Conferencing & desktop sharing) – $124.00 each, or $124,000 total
  • 1,000 Plus User CALs (Voice & call management) – $124.00 each, or $124,000 total

Total: $287,646

Exchange Server (for voicemail):

  • 1 Exchange Server (Enterprise) License – $4,051
  • 1,000 Standard User CALs (MS Open License) – $5.00 each, or $5,000 total
  • 1,000 Enterprise User CALs (MS Open License) – $55.00 each, or $55,000 total

Total: $64,051

Grand Total for 1,000 users: $351,697
(This is a three-year cost, and assumes no discounts.)

 

Skype for Business License Cost

You’ll need a few stacks of these…

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

So if an enterprise with 1,000 users opted for an on-prem Skype for Business Server, it would cost roughly the same as 1 year of Office 365 E5. Fair enough. But the Skype for Business Server has a three-year usability period…

Assuming a 5% maintenance cost (about $17,500) for Years 2 and 3, they would end up paying $386,697 over those three years. If they went with E5 and didn’t have any maintenance costs at all, they’d end up paying $1,037,520.

At enterprise-level, Teams actually costs more than its predecessor!

The Quagmire: Skype for Business is Going Away

This is a serious cost discrepancy. Big enough to push larger businesses away from Office 365, back to on-prem.

Now, some enterprises would have no problem paying these amounts. They also get additional value from the related O365 services (see Addendum below). If so, great, more power to them! However, Accounting usually likes to save money. These numbers may cause them to balk.

What will the enterprise do if they want to save money? At these user counts, an on-prem server actually saves money. Sticking with Skype for Business Server makes economic and organizational sense.

But what about after Skype for Business Server 2019? Microsoft has not clarified if another version is on the roadmap. Given their merging all Skype for Business tools into Teams, it does not look likely. If there’s no on-prem version coming after 2019, then enterprises are stuck! They’ll have three choices:

  1. Move to Teams anyway,
  2. Keep their Skype for Business Server running as long as possible, and/or
  3. Switch to another on-prem Unified Communications provider.

On-Prem Skype for Business Alternatives for Future Succession

I cannot accurately speculate the Unified Communications landscape in 2020 and beyond. All I can do is look at what’s available now, and prognosticate their future offerings.

 

On-Prem Unified Communications Choices

2019 is coming fast.
Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash.

If all you need is video conferencing and the cloud is OK, you should still have alternatives like Join.me, Appear.in, Workplace, or Slack. I don’t think any of these will go anywhere.

If you’ll need an on-prem, full-capability Skype for Business Server successor, I expect the following will still be around:

I’m NOT saying these solutions are better than Skype for Business Server (or Office 365 for that matter). Just presenting alternatives that have staying power.

Enterprises: The Time to Start Thinking about your On-Prem Skype for Business is Now

Microsoft’s push away from on-prem to the cloud has merits, in many respects. That said, just because a larger business has the budget to spend on lots of cloud services, doesn’t mean it’s the best use of the money. Office 365 may just not be the choice for them.

Unfortunately that presents a serious financial quagmire. It’s not here yet…but it’s coming.

(By the way, we will gladly support on-prem Skype for Business Servers into 2020. And beyond!)

Enterprise IT employees, what’s your Unified Communications outlook for the future?


ADDENDUM 5-17-18: As Mark pointed out in the comments, I didn’t factor in other Office 365 services as a pricing justification. This is true, and a good point for him to make. Office 365 does come with more than Teams – Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, etc. It also reduces the need for on-prem hardware and staff.

I don’t want to minimize the value here. O365 can be a huge help for businesses who need full-fledged IT infrastructures, and may not have the budget to build them on-prem. That said, I’m still not sure enterprises would gain financially from an Office 365 move as opposed to on-prem. At least as far as Skype for Business is concerned.

(I may do a follow-up post to address this part of the situation in more detail. Stay subscribed!)


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How the Load Balancer Fits into Skype for Business

Our fourth entry in the “How It Fits” series is…the Load Balancer!

Load balancers show up in every level of a Skype for Business deployment. They’re an integral component of effective Skype for Business Online tenants as well.

If a load balancer does its job right, it’s pretty much invisible. If it doesn’t, it’s a loud and persistent pain. Which it is all depends on your configuration. As such, you’re most likely to work with a load balancer when first deploying Skype for Business.

This post is meant as an overarching take on the load balancer’s function and value. If you’re looking at a new Skype for Business deployment, on-prem or hybrid, this is a quick read that could help a lot!

The Load Balancer’s Primary Role

A load balancer distributes traffic among servers in a pool. In Skype for Business, this means it distributes traffic between role-based server pools. For example, between two Front End Servers.

It’s similar in some ways to a Reverse Proxy. (Some hardware load balancers even include reverse proxy functionality.) But instead of worrying about authenticating traffic from outside the network, it focuses on optimal traffic management inside the network.

Why use load balancing in the first place?Load Balancing Diagram from F5

  • Bolsters reliability. The load balancer helps prevent any one server from becoming overwhelmed.
  • Increases overall Skype for Business stability. Smart traffic management helps avoid traffic bottlenecks.
  • Some Skype for Business services require load balancing to function (e.g. managing HTTP traffic).

Main Components of a Load Balancer

At its core, a load balancer consists of:

  • A Distribution algorithm, and
  • A server pool monitor/health check

The distribution algorithm determines to which server it should send traffic requests. The server pool monitor, well, monitors the assigned server pool’s health and traffic responses.

What kind of traffic are we talking about? All kinds: HTTP/HTTPS, SIP, TCP, UDP. Basically, if you use server pools for any of the Skype4B Server Roles, you should use a load balancer for each.

Other Servers a Load Balancer Communicates With

In Skype for Business, you can load balance any Server Role which has (or can have) multiple servers in a pool. That includes:

  1. Edge Server
  2. Front End Server
  3. Director
  4. Office Web Apps Server

Load Balancers must communicate not only with the servers they’re balancing, but with the servers sending traffic to them. That means they’ll talk with the Mediation Server, PSTN Gateways, and our last “How it Fits” role, the Reverse Proxy.

What about Office 365? If you’re running a hybrid deployment, you’ll need load balancing on the on-prem side. From Plan for Network Devices that Connect to Office 365 Services:

Your organization needs to use a hardware load balancer (HLB) or a Network Load Balancing (NLB) solution to distribute requests to your Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) servers and/or your Exchange hybrid servers.

In other words, load balancing between Office 365’s servers and your network!

What Kind of Load Balancer Should You Use?

Two types of load balancing exist in Skype for Business.

  1. DNS load balancing, and
  2. Hardware load balancing

This is an important distinction. It’s also the source of most load balancing grief.

DNS Load Balancing:
This is more a technique than a device. It involves mapping server pool names to not one, but a set of IP addresses in DNS.

Let’s say you have a Front End pool named “Headquarters.” The Headquarters pool has three IP addresses mapped to it – 10.10.10.1, 10.10.10.2, and 10.10.10.3.

When your Skype for Business client tries to connect to “Headquarters,” DNS sends it all three IPs. The client tries connecting to the first IP, 10.10.10.1. But this IP already has another client connected and cannot respond. So the client tries 10.10.10.2. That works.

Connections stable. Traffic load balanced.

DNS Load Balancing – Microsoft Docs

Hardware Load Balancers:
A hardware load balancer is a dedicated device which distributes traffic requests to a server pool. I think of these like a “Traffic Cop” inside your network.

We use an F5 hardware load balancer for our Skype for Business Server. Cost us a bit, but wow did it help with call quality!

Since hardware load balancers actively listen to incoming & outgoing traffic, they can mitigate traffic bottlenecks. Preventing call drops, static, and external connection troubles.

===============

When setting up load balancing in your topology, keep these restrictions in mind:

  • If your Edge pool uses load balancing, the internal Edge interface and external Edge interface must use the same type. Can’t use DNS load balancing on one, and hardware on the other. You’ll experience some serious traffic errors!
  • Some traffic types require a hardware load balancer (e.g. HTTP traffic). DNS load balancing does not work with client-to-server web traffic either.

Our experience confirms these restrictions. In Skype for Business Server’s early days, we observed that combining both load balancing types in one deployment caused havoc. Inconsistent delays, strange errors with no apparent cause, bottlenecks, etc. When we standardized on one load balancing type topology-wide, these issues evaporated.

Traffic Load Balancing

Traffic, nice and organized.
Photo by Fahrul Azmi on Unsplash.

Here’s a nice setup/overview video from A10 Networks if you’d like more.

Load Balancers Reduce TCO By Easing the Burden on Skyep4B Server Pools

Which load balancing method should you choose? There’s no universal standard. But we go by this rule of thumb: The larger the deployment, the more a hardware load balancer is necessary. They are more powerful, more intelligent, and more reliable.

It does add to up-front deployment cost. But it reduces TCO. Once load balancing is in place, configured, and running properly, it helps the Server Roles function at peak. Even (especially) under heavy load.

What kind of load balancing do you run in your Skype for Business topology?

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